After the Armistice
Dates are military history’s bookends, easily containing a war between a start date and an end date. Often only the war itself is studied, to the exclusion of the events that preceded and followed it. The Korean War ended 59 years ago on 27 July 1953, but Canadians soldiers, sailors, and air personnel remained in Korea well after the armistice was signed. Some against their will: The last Canadian prisoner of war, Squadron Leader A.R. MacKenzie, was released in 1954. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Canadian units left the peninsula in 1954 and 1955; for example, the warship HMCS Sioux left Korean waters in September 1955. Medical units remained in-theatre even longer, with an army medical detachment staying until July 1957.
The Memory Project has interviewed numerous Korean War veterans who served in-theatre after the armistice. Some of these individuals were initially reticent, arguing that because they did not see combat their stories were not interesting. However, their accounts provide important details into life in post-war Korea as, in the limited literature about Canada’s participation in the war, there is even less written about what Canadians did following the armistice.
Simply because the armistice was in effect, the danger was not over and soldiers continued to patrol the hills. As Lieutenant-General Charles Belzile comments, small firefights continued to occur between his Queen’s Own Rifles troops and Chinese and North Korean soldiers along the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel. Soldiers were even captured, although quickly repatriated. While not in the hills, troops trained or cleared mines, the latter a dangerous task, as mines were often not marked.
Frank Smyth, with the Canadian Provost Corps in Korea, recalls one time when enemy soldiers threatened to cross the 38th parallel. Consequently, the UN troops hastily retreated across the Imjin River, with Smyth and his partner bringing up the rear. The bridge they crossed was supposed to blow at midnight; Smyth crossed the bridge at 12:05am. Smyth also recalls writing to his family asking them to donate clothes and toys for Korean children who had lost everything in the war. During the war and after, Canadian soldiers interacted with South Korean locals on a regular basis; often South Koreans were hired to work in army kitchens, do laundry, and other tasks around camp. Due to Koreans’ primitive living conditions, Canadian soldiers often checked to see if the locals needed anything and that they were healthy. The locals appreciated the Canadians’ service; South Korean elders gave Lieutenant Fred Joyce, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, a set of silver chopsticks and a serving spoon as a token of goodwill.
As Joyce notes, life in Korea after the armistice gradually became more about “keeping people occupied,” rather than preparing for a break in the armistice. While Canada’s contribution to Korea was not on the same scale as the U.S., this does not diminish or discount the important work Canadians undertook to ensure peace in a country far away from their own home.